Early Education Improves Memory in Old Age, Especially for Women
More years of education in childhood and early adulthood appears to protect older adults, particularly women, against memory loss, according to a new study of Taiwanese adults conducted by researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C.
The findings suggest that children — especially girls — who attend school for a longer period of time will have better memory skills in old age.
For the study, the research team tested declarative memory in 704 Taiwanese older adults (58 to 98 years of age). Declarative memory refers to our ability to remember events, facts and words, such as where you put your keys or the name of your new neighbor. In other words, it refers to memories that can be consciously recalled, or “declared.”
Participants were presented with drawings of objects, then tested several minutes later on their memory of these objects. The researchers found that their memory performance became progressively worse with age. However, they found that more years of early-life education countered these losses, especially in women.
“Since learning new information in declarative memory is easier if it is related to knowledge we already have, more knowledge from more education should result in better memory abilities, even years later,” said the study’s lead author, Jana Reifegerste, PhD, a member of the scientific staff at the University of Potsdam, Germany, who worked on this study as a postdoctoral researcher.
In men, the memory gains associated with each year of education were two times larger than the losses experienced during each year of aging. However, in women, the gains were five times larger.
For example, the declarative memory abilities of an 80-year-old woman with a bachelor’s degree would be as good as those of a 60-year-old woman with a high school education. So, four extra years of education make up for the memory losses from 20 years of aging.
“Simply said, learning begets learning,” says the study’s senior investigator, Michael Ullman, PhD, a professor in Georgetown’s Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Language Lab.
“Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys, so education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls,” says Ullman. “Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age.”
Ullman’s research on the association between language, memory and the brain has been a cornerstone in the fields of language and cognitive neuroscience.
The study tested individuals in a non-Western (Taiwanese) population. Participants varied in the number of years of education, from none at all to graduate studies. More research is needed to see whether the study findings generalize to other populations, Ullman says.
“These findings may be important, especially considering the rapidly aging population globally,” Reifegerste says. “The results argue for further efforts to increase access to education.”
The study may also have implications for understanding memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. It is estimated that around 50 million people worldwide live with dementia.
“Education has also been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” Ullman says. “We believe that our findings may shed light on why this occurs.”
The new findings are published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.
Pedersen, T. (2020). Early Education Improves Memory in Old Age, Especially for Women. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/12/early-education-improves-memory-in-old-age-especially-for-women/157141.html